Scrapping green regulations in a bid to boost economic growth amounts to “a full-on attack on the laws that protect nature”, conservationists have warned.
Laws that protect species such as porpoises, hazel dormice and otters are set to be “reformed” by the government as it embarks on a major drive to deregulate and “streamline” rules safeguarding the natural world.
Environmental campaigners warned the drive to scrap regulations would be “devastating” for British wildlife.
“Nature is already in crisis,” said Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts. “Pretty much everything that is being proposed about deregulating our environmental and planning protections will make the situation even worse.”
On Thursday the government set out details of its plans to amend or completely ax more than 500 EU laws from the UK statute books by the end of next year.
That includes habitats regulations, which the government has promised to “fundamentally reform”.
The habitats regulations protect a combined 18.8 million hectares of natural habitat across the UK, land that is home to wildlife such as puffins and curlews. They also directly protect specific species such as bats and porpoises.
The government also today set out plans to create ‘Investment Zones’ across the country, which it said will benefit from lighter planning restrictions and tax breaks.
That could include relaxing ‘nutrient neutrality’ ruleswhich stops councils awarding planning permission to new developments that would increase nitrate and phosphate levels in already polluted rivers.
The Treasury said more detail would be set out in the upcoming Planning and Infrastructure Billincluding measures that would “reduce the burden of environmental assessments” and “reform habitats and species regulations”.
The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, thanks to centuries of intensive farming, buildings and industry. A study by the Natural History Museum in 2020 estimated that the UK has only half of its natural biodiversity left.
The RSPB said it is “deeply concerned” by the deregulatory moves, warning the “Government has effectively launched a full-on attack on the laws that protect nature”.
“Whatever people’s views on Europe, laws such as the habitats regulations have played a vital role in protecting our very best places for wildlife the length and breadth of England,” said the charity’s England director Emma Marsh.
“The laws that are now under attack were introduced to protect what we had left. Without them nature would be in even worse trouble. They’ve given us hope that some of our rarest and most vulnerable wildlife can still recover. ”
Action to cut cut post-Brexit red tape will inevitably focus on environmental issues. The bulk of laws carried over from the EU since Brexit deal with environmental regulations, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in charge of 570 retained EU laws – more than any other department.
The retained laws ensure rare species are protected and provide legal protection against the pollution of air and waterways.
“Hundreds of environmental laws are at stake, including rules that protect wildlife, prevent harmful pollution, and create a level-playing field for green businesses,” warned Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of the Wildlife and Countryside Link.
“Simply scrapping the body of EU-retained environmental law would be legal and environmental folly. Spending time rewriting the rules would be a waste of time and public money. ”